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Cat-speak Dictionary: Vocalization and Purring

Cats have an amazing array of sounds they can make in order to communicate their feelings. Some cats are more talkative than others – Oriental breeds such as the Siamese are known to be the bigmouths of the feline world – but even your shelter-rescue moggie could end up being an expert conversationalist. But what is your kitten saying with all those sounds? Here's a quick checklist:

  • Chirp. When your cat makes this soft, trill-like noise, he's saying hello.

  • Chatter. If you've seen your cat staring out the window and making a "kik-kik-kik-kik" noise, he's saying that he sees prey and he can't get to it.

  • Growl. You'll know a growl when you hear it, and if you're wise, you'll back off. The growl is a warning sound.

  • Hiss. Although we may think of the hiss as an aggressive noise, it's really a defensive sound. Your cat hisses as a warning, to bluff an attacker into backing off and avoiding a fight.

  • Spit. The spit usually happens at the beginning of a hiss, and is a sign that your cat is surprised or feeling threatened.

  • Yowl. This low-pitched wail of dismay is more often heard in disoriented elderly cats than in kittens. But if your kitten gets stuck somewhere, the noise she'll use to convey her sorry state is a yowl. Female cats also yowl when they're in heat.

The most mysterious and wonderful cat sound is, without a doubt, the purr. This sound conveys contentment and bliss, and there's no remedy for a hectic day quite like an evening with a purring cat resting in your lap or by your side.

Scientists still don't know exactly how cats purr. Theories range from nerve impulses to muscle spasms to simply air moving back and forth across the vocal cords. There is good evidence that the purr originated as a contact sound between mother cats and newborn kittens. Kittens can purr by the time they're two days old. A mother cat's purr apparently reassures the kittens that all is well, and because kittens are born blind and deaf, they can locate their mother by the vibrations from her purrs. It is thought that the kittens' purring reassures their mothers that they're getting enough to eat.

Although cats most often purr when they're relaxed and happy, they also purr to other cats to indicate submission. Cats purr to comfort themselves when they're in labor, and when they're sick or injured. There is some speculation that purring is a healing tool because the vibration stimulates muscles and bones.

Veterinarians have witnessed cats that purr when they're close to dying. Humans have reported a sense of euphoria when death is imminent; it's just possible that cats experience something similar and purr as a result.

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